The Covid-19 pandemic could lead to a rise in violent crime in Scotland as the country struggles to recover from the impact of the virus, experts have warned.

With known drivers of violence such as unemployment, poverty, trauma, and mental health issues likely to increase, there is concern that the significant reductions made in violent crime over the last decade could see a partial reversal.

The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU) believes Covid has been a “reset” for violent crime, with numbers dropping over the last year due to nationwide lockdowns.

However, Will Linden, deputy director of the SVRU, claims that what comes next is giving them pause for thought.

“We’ve seen society change over the last year, directly and indirectly related to the response to Covid,” he said.

“Covid has been a reset, but it’s yet to be seen what’s going to happen with the violence figures as we move forward.

“Once the pubs and clubs reopen on a wider scale, are we going to go back to city centre violence?

“We’ve seen at the weekend that when people drink heavily and congregate, we see an increase in violence in the street, with alcohol being the primary driver there.

“So are we going to see that again as society opens up and people come back out after a year of hibernation?

“We’re also going to see reductions in people working, we’re going to see increases in mental health problems. There are a number of factors here that up until last year were fairly stable in Scotland but have now completely changed, so we’re really at a transition point in terms of how Scotland recovers from this and what happens with the violence figures.”

He added: “I think we’re probably looking at some form of increase over the next couple of years, hopefully small, and then we can work to reduce it further.”

The SVRU was introduced by Strathclyde Police in 2005 in response to alarming numbers of homicides and gang violence across the area, particularly in Glasgow.

The following year, it was turned into a national unit and by treating violence as a public health problem, non-sexual violent crimes were halved from 14,728 in 2004/5 to 7,251 in 2017/18.

However, over the last few years, there have been slight increases again.

Criminology professor Susan McVie said that while we do not yet know exactly what the impact of the pandemic will be, previous experience of economic downturn and austerity shows that there is potential for an increase in violence.

“Looking at previous economic crises, what you tend to see is an economic crime wave which can then be followed by a violent crime wave,” she said.

“It’s hard to say whether that will happen with Covid as we haven’t experienced this type of situation. If things bounce back fairly quickly, then it might not happen.

“But when we look at the crime figures, we know we have seen huge reductions in violent crime compared to the early 2000s, but over the last few years those figures have been starting to creep back up again.

“If whatever is causing those figures to creep up is exacerbated by the conditions of the pandemic, then there is potential for violent crime to increase.”

She added that expected austerity cuts, which are likely to impact on mental health and addiction services and community organisations, could also exacerbate the situation and put extra pressure on police, who now often play the role of first responders for vulnerable people within the community.

Ms McVey said officials “should be talking now” about better multi-agency responses.

The SVRU is focusing on a community response to help areas recover – particularly in the face of expected austerity cuts to services.

“We realise that policing is not enough,” Mr Linden said. “We need to empower communities because over the next couple of years we’re possibly looking at service reductions through austerity measures.

“We don’t know that will happen for sure, but it’s likely, so we have to help communities support themselves and also guide the services so that what they can provide is directed to the right areas.

“The question we’re asking now is ‘how can we support communities so that violence is not accepted or tolerated by those communities?’”

He added: “As a society, we have changed our attitude towards violence, so I would hope it wouldn’t go back to the way it was, and I don’t think it will go back to the way it was in terms of huge numbers, but I would think there will probably be some form of increase.”